Manchester United are back in the top four of the Premier League for the first time in what seems like ages. The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer revolution continued apace with a convincing 0-3 win over relegation-threatened Fulham at Craven Cottage. A brace from Paul Pogba — a first half stunner and a second half penalty — and a brilliant individual effort from Anthony Martial secured the three points.
Outside of an FA Cup tie against lower league opposition, there was only one match under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in which he failed to select the strongest XI available to him. The result of that was the only time his side had to settle for a draw, but with a gauntlet of difficult tests awaiting United in the next few weeks, squad rotation was always going to be necessary again today. This time, though, United’s first-and-a-half string did not miss a beat.
United could have been behind within the first minute. Fulham’s first foray forward was a counterattack following a United set piece that caught the Reds totally unprepared. Luciano Vietto met a cross at the far post with just David de Gea to beat, but could only send his shot into the side netting. Barely three minutes later, with Fulham all over United, Andre Schürrle’s wayward finishing spared the visitors a disastrous start.
United settled after that initially rocky start, and were ahead after a quarter of an hour. Ander Herrera, who has been quietly outstanding recently, nipped in cleverly to win a loose ball ahead of an outrushing defender. The Spaniard played in Anthony Martial who then found Pogba making a run to the left of the goal. Pogba seemed primed to play the ball across goal, but surprised everyone — including the goalkeeper — by blasting his shot into the near post top corner from an improbable angle.
Seven minutes later, Martial turned from provider to finisher. The Frenchman had been United’s most dangerous attacking threat of the game so far, and when he picked up the ball just inside his own half (technically Phil Jones got an assist here), he sent the Fulham defenders into half-frozen panic. Martial beat one defender, then another, before bending a low shot around Sergio Rico to double United’s lead.
Fulham had been made to pay a cruel price for their ambition. The home team were starting to foul repeatedly out of frustration, the worst of which saw Calum Chambers escape with only a yellow card for standing on the leg of Chris Smalling. Up the other end, the Craven Cottage home crowd was treated to a rare and precious sight. Jones, with an assist to his name already, blasted a shot from outside the box that only narrowly went over the bar. Clearly, this is a team high on confidence.
Fulham came out of the break intending to have a go at United again, but were no more successful than they were in the opening minutes of the first half. After creating a few half-chances of their own, by the hour mark the Cottagers found themselves pinned back in their own half. Sergio Rico had to react quickly to keep out a Ander Herrera volley.
Cruelly, Fulham’s next attack hurt them again. A foiled foray forward led to another United counterattack. Romelu Lukaku outmuscled and outran his defender and played a ball into Juan Mata in the box. Mata was clumsily bundled over by Maxime Le Marchand, and the referee pointed to the spot. Pogba stepped up, and with a short run up, put away the penalty for his 13th goal of the season.
With the result secured, Solskjaer could start looking towards PSG on Tuesday. The only first choice attacker to start the match — Martial — was withdrawn for Alexis Sánchez in the 70th minute. A few minutes later, Pogba was replaced by Scott McTominay.
Both substitutes almost scored right after coming on. After a giveaway from Le Marchand — who was not having his best day — Sergio Rico had to be very sharp to keep out a shot from Sánchez. Moments later, Sánchez’s cross met a McTominay header that beat the ‘keeper but hit the top of the net.
The excellent Ander Herrera got a short breather courtesy of Eric Bailly towards the end, and United saw out the result from there. United are now up to eleven games unbeaten under their new manager, and are looking like a totally different prospect than they did two months ago. On to PSG.